Newswise — The UC San Diego Autism Center for Excellence has received a $1.5 million gift from Kristin Farmer, founder and chief executive officer of ACES, a San Diego-headquartered company that provides services to children with autism and their families, to support the work of Karen Pierce, PhD, co-director of the Autism Center for Excellence, and colleagues.

Pierce, who is also a professor in the Department of Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine, has studied autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for more than 25 years, focusing on developing neural and clinical markers for earlier identification of the neurological condition that affects an estimated one in 54 children.

The gift specifically targets three aspects of Pierce’s research:

  • Translating into standard clinical practice Pierce’s method for automatic eye tracking as a tool for the early detection of ASD, and as a way to understand prognoses and outcomes. For more than a decade, Pierce and colleagues have been using eye tracking to understand what social and nonsocial stimuli capture the attention of toddlers — for example, videos of children playing versus moving geometric shapes — to assess ASD risk. Pierce and her team discovered that infants and toddlers who prefer to look and attend to geometric images rather than to social images have more than a 90 percent risk of having ASD.
  • Refining the Get SET Early program, which has been used to screen more than 100,000 infants and toddlers. Created by Pierce and introduced in 2011, the Get SET Early program has been shown able to identify risk for ASD and other developmental disorders at 12-, 18- and 24-month well baby checkups. It is based on questionnaires conducted by parents and pediatricians, and systematically identifies telltale clues for ASD. The Get SET Early Program has been replicated in multiple studies and is expanding nationwide.
  • Establishing an excellence fund that will provide discretionary support to pursue novel biological and behavioral methods to make diagnoses and prognoses even earlier, more rapid and linked to specific treatments.

“These are all critical areas of our work,” said Pierce. “They represent initiatives intended to be transformative in our ability to understand and treat autism and, most importantly, maximize the potential of every child with autism.

“Kristin and I have known and worked together for decades. We share the same dream: To change the world for the better for children living with ASD. I’ve pursued that dream through research; and Kristin through therapies that improve children’s daily lives. This gift represents a moment of really coming together.”

After working as a teacher, Farmer founded ACES in 1996 with the mission to enhance the quality of life for individuals and families impacted with autism or other special needs. Services at ACES include Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) treatments, school and occupational assistance, workshops for parents and siblings, speech therapy and programs for adults. ACES oversees more than 40 locations in seven states (California, Arizona, Washington, Hawaii, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas), providing services to more than 10,000 individuals each year.

“I met Dr. Pierce more than 25 years ago when I was a teacher. We both shared the same dream: To make the world better and more inclusive for individuals with autism and developmental disabilities. The work of ACES is to translate and apply the tools of science to effectively help people with autism in clinical and educational environments. We value innovation and clinical excellence. This year is the 25th anniversary of ACES. I celebrated by supporting Dr. Pierce’s work that will redefine diagnoses of autism and enable us to elevate standards in the treatment of autism.

“My dream is that the work funded by this gift, and the achievements made, will translate into real-world benefits for children not just in San Diego, but well beyond. This gift represents Dr. Pierce and me uniting our life’s work to innovate the field of autism, spread hope and enable a future full of possibilities.”